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11 takeaways from Whitmer’s COVID update: Variant spreading, Michigan vaccinations, relief money

State announces $52.5 million in relief for nearly 6,000 small businesses

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a Feb. 17, 2021, COVID-19 briefing. (WDIV)

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer provided an update Wednesday on the state’s handling of COVID-19, talking about the more contagious variant, vaccinations and what’s next for Michigan.

Here are our takeaways from the briefing:

Relief for small businesses

Whitmer announced $52.5 million will be given to nearly 6,000 small businesses across the state that have been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money will come from the Michigan Small Business Survival Grant program.

“The Michigan Small Business Survival Grant Program provides crucial support to Michigan’s small businesses hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Whitmer said. “These grants, combined with additional business relief efforts offered by the MEDC, will create a strong foundation for Michigan’s long-term economic recovery.”

The Michigan Small Business Survival Grant Program allocated $55 million to provide support to Michigan small businesses hurt most by COVID-19 safety orders. The program allowed for grants of up to $20,000 for businesses that are fully closed and grants of up to $15,000 for those that have been partially closed or otherwise affected.

Vaccinations

Whitmer reiterated the state’s goal of vaccinating 70% of Michigan residents ages 16 and older as quickly as possible.

“To date, we have administered 1,657,215 vaccines, and that number is growing by the minute,” Whitmer said.

Michigan is ninth in the nation in terms of total vaccinations administered, according to the governor.

“We are ramping up our efforts to get second shots in arms while prioritizing our front line workers, educators, veterans and elderly populations,” Whitmer said.

About 14% of Michiganders have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and more than 514,000 people are fully vaccinated with both doses, according to the state.

More than 35% of people 75 and older have had at least one dose of the vaccine, officials said.

The state wants to administer 50,000 vaccinations per day, and Whitmer said that goal has been reached several times. Once more vaccines are available, officials hope to do so on a daily basis, she said.

Fighting poverty

The Michigan Poverty Task Force is recommending 35 new policies to try to lift residents out of poverty. The group presented those findings to Whitmer.

“The economic impact and hardships this pandemic has imposed on so many Michiganders only makes the work of this task force more critical,” Whitmer said. “These recommendations will help us ensure that Michigan families have access to the support they need. I look forward to working across the aisle and with our many stakeholders to implement the recommendations that have the biggest impact across our state.”

Whitmer included a $1 million appropriation for research and planning to fight pverty in the state.

Here are some of the key recommendations:

  • Benefits: Commission a comprehensive study on outcomes for former state assistance recipients and adopt a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) shelter stipend
  • Economics: Increase access to Michigan’s Earned Income Tax Credit; support and incubate children’s savings accounts; and expand the housing choice voucher pilot program between the Michigan State Housing and Development Authority and the Michigan Department of Corrections
  • Criminal Justice: Expand apprenticeship opportunities for inmates while incarcerated; and divert people with behavioral health needs away from the justice system
  • Health, Safety and Housing: Create child support pass-through to families who receive or have received cash assistance; and fund the Michigan Housing and Community Development Fund
  • Education: Expand the Great Start Readiness Program; expand Early Childhood Home Visiting and Maternal-Infant Health programs; increase income eligibility for child care; and expand school breakfast and breakfast-after-the-bell programs

“These recommendations are the first step toward restoring the state’s safety net and bringing opportunity to struggling families,” said Kim Trent, LEO deputy director for prosperity and key staffer to the Poverty Task Force. “Creating conditions that give every Michigander access to economic opportunity and prosperity is one of the most sacred duties of state government.”

Whitmer calls out Legislature

While announcing the bipartisan relief bill for small businesses, Whitmer once again called out the Republican-led Michigan Legislature.

“Even if members of the Legislature want to indulge in conspiracy theories or hurl insults, I remain ready to work together to deliver for the people of this state,” Whitmer said.

She said she is focused on the issues and won’t let her judgement get clouded by the outside noise.

“When we work together, we can help people,” Whitmer said.

The governor has made several similar statements throughout the pandemic. The two sides have been at odds since she issued executive orders in the summer without Legislative approval.

“Inaction at this crucial time is unacceptable, so I encourage members of the Legislatures to work with me in a civil way to give Michigan families, our businesses, our schools and communities the resources that they need to survive and to succeed,” Whitmer said.

Updated COVID metrics

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, updated the state’s top COVID-19 metrics.

“I continue to be very encouraged by the data we are seeing in the state, with regards to COVID-19,” Khaldun said.

Michigan’s case rate continues to decline and is down to 113 cases per million people, she said. That’s down 85% from the mid-November peak.

As of Wednesday, 3.9% of COVID-19 tests are coming back positive across the state, a percentage that has continued to decline in the past five weeks, Khaldun said. Last week, Michigan was at 4.5% positivity.

Only 5.2% of Michigan’s hospital beds are currently occupied by COVID-19 patients. That number is down 79% from the late fall peak, she said.

Overall, the number of active outbreaks being investigated by local health departments across Michigan is down 7% from the previous week.

“These are very encouraging trends that have us moving in the right direction,” Khaldun said. “But as I’ve mentioned before over the past several weeks, we will continue to keep a close eye on a number of cases of the B117 variant that have been identified.”

B117 variant

Khaldun said the state of Michigan currently has 157 cases of the B117 variant confirmed across 12 counties.

“We continue to move forward with a proactive public health response,” Khaldun said. “This means isolation, quarantine and frequent testing whenever we identify outbreaks associated with the variant.”

The B117 variant was first identified in the United Kingdom, and a person connected to the University of Michigan athletic department who traveled there tested positive for that variant.

An outbreak in the athletic department led to a two-week shut down of U of M sports. At the time, the variant was only confirmed in Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

But since then, Michigan has confirmed cases in many other counties, Khaldun said. Not all of them are connected to people who travel to the UK, so we’ve reached a point of “community spread,” she announced last week.

On Tuesday, officials announced 90 cases of that variant have been identified at the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility in Ionia.

Of those 90 cases, 88 are prisoners and two are employees, officials said. More than 100 lab results are still pending.

“Everyone has a role to play in slowing the spread of this new variant, as there are possibly more cases that we don’t yet know about,” Khaldun said Wednesday.

She reemphasized the importance of wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and avoiding large gatherings.

Message for people awaiting vaccinations

Khaldun said she knows not everyone in Michigan who wants to get vaccinated for COVID-19 can get an appointment right now, even among those who are currently eligible.

She said officials are continuing to work toward getting as many people vaccinated as possible. Here’s her full message to those Michiganders:

“We know there are many other people who want to get a vaccine, and there simply are not enough vaccines available for everyone who wants one right now. For everyone who hasn’t yet received a vaccine, either because an appointment hasn’t been available or you are not yet eligible, we and our local health departments, our hospitals and our other partners, thank you for your patience.

“We will all keep working around the clock until everyone who wants a vaccine is able to get one. So until then, to protect others who are not yet vaccinated, and even after you receive yours, wear your mask, socially distance and wash your hands.

“There is hope ahead, but it’s critical that we all remain vigilant as we work together to end this pandemic.”

Michigan hosting President Biden

Whitmer wouldn’t reveal whether she will join President Joe Biden as he visits the Pfizer facility for a tour on Thursday.

“There aren’t a lot of details to share officially about the president’s visit tomorrow, but I’m really glad that he’s coming,” Whitmer said. “As you know, we’ve got a good relationship, so I anticipate that as we learn more, I’ll be able to share them with you.”

She said one of the state’s proudest moment of the last year was watching the COVID-19 vaccines roll out of Portage, Michigan, with the entire nation watching.

“The partnership that we’ve had with the Biden Administration is refreshing, and I am just glad that the president is prioritizing vaccine rollouts,” Whitmer said.

Vaccine distribution

Whitmer and Khaldun were asked about the concerns of Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel about the number of vaccines specifically being allocated to their counties.

Khaldun said at the beginning of the vaccine rollout, distribution was based on the number of health care workers across the state, as they were the top priority for vaccinations at the time.

“When we move forward with front line essential workers and people over the age of 65, we are actually distributing vaccine first and foremost based on how many people for those eligible age groups -- how many people there are in each jurisdiction across the state,” Khaldun said.

She said there has been a steady increase in vaccines going to Wayne County, not just for the health department but also for vaccinations by Meijer.

“As we continue to see our supply increase, we will be able to include more and more providers across the state,” Khaldun said.

Slow reopening process

Whitmer said Wednesday that while she knows strict COVID-19 regulations have been difficult for many businesses, primarily restaurants, the pause has helped put Michigan among the top states in terms of fighting the virus.

“Michigan is in a stronger position than most other states in the nation right now,” Whitmer said. “It’s because the pause worked. It’s because we’re being very thoughtful about incrementally reengaging sectors of our economy that just inherently pose a higher risk.”

She said decisions will continue to be made based on COVID-19 metrics and scientific data.

MI COVID Recovery Plan

“We must invest in Michigan, in our public schools, public health and public roads.”

That was a slide brought up behind Whitmer as she spoke about the MI COVID Recovery Plan and her budget.

Whitmer said she wants to use the money allocated to Michigan to improve the state, and called on the Legislature to negotiate with her about the funds.

“That’s why I remain ready to work with the Legislature to pass both the MI COVID Recovery Plan and my budget,” the slide said.


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